Parts of unincorporated Dade can feel like something of a time warp. But for three weekends a year, it actually is just that. That's right, the Florida Renaissance Festival has returned to Cauley Square Historical Village in Goulds. This past weekend and this coming weekend, the usual scatterings of people in strange dress wandering around and chewing meat off the bone are not just Goulds doing Goulds, but are part of an organized, family-friendly event.
We spoke to several of these visitors from another era as they recreated what life was like in a Spanish colony at the start of the 16th century. Come along, won't you, and meet our new friends: The sword swallower! The queen! The man who has tomatoes thrown at him by angry strangers! The woman who sells corsets to toddlers! These are the people in your neighborhood.
Sean, Human Target at Tomato Torture
Sean harbors no illusions about his role at the fair. "I take tomatoes in the face and insult people," he says. "I'm actually a human being, although a lot of people think I'm not because of the things I say and the horrible gestures I make sometimes." Even though people pay money to throw mushy tomatoes at his head, Sean makes a concerted effort to not to make them cry. "I focus on things they can change, like hairstyles and shoe choices, rather than physical mistakes," he says.
Cultist: What percentage of the tomatoes actually hit you in the face?
Sean: It couldn't be more than two or three percent. It's surprising, the lack of accuracy, and I bemoan the state of tomorrow's pitching in baseball.
Has it gotten worse over time?
No, it stays about the same. It depends also on the place you're at. A lot of different places have different styles of throwing. In Texas, they all like sidearm because of Nolan Ryan, I guess. Though there may be other reasons. You know, the stalls are real low there, and they're trying to sneak their hands up under in the pay toilets. Or maybe it's from milking the stallions. I don't know.
How does Miami compare?
In Miami, they're less likely to hate me so much. They're kind of tolerant. I'll insult them and they'll just laugh and move on. They're willing to take it. The more self-important people are, the less they get this game. They end up wanting to kill me rather than having some fun.
Where are people the most self-important?
It's not so much where in the country as it is about the individual. If someone is having a bad day and I say something that hits a nerve, they get upset. And it happens.
Any that stand out?
Well, one that was distatestful to me was, I said, "You've got about the same chance of hitting me as you do of figuring out who your real father was." And it was a kid who was there with the Big Brothers system. I felt real bad about it and started toning stuff down after that one.
Mo, Corset Salesperson
She receives mail at her parents' place in New York but otherwise, Mo travels with the fairs and has no fixed address. She's been doing this for almost a year, she says, and "wouldn't give it up for the world." She usually sleeps in a tent, sometimes an RV.
Before this, Mo says, "I was working all sorts of different warehouse jobs and I couldn't stand it. This gets me out of the factory and out of the warehouse and I get to interact with people. It's a lot easier. People live a lot different. Most people think we choose to live poor but we don't; our profit comes in many other ways. I get my profit from seeing other people happy."
Cultist: What kind of child buys a corset?
Mo: Their parents usually.
At what age would you start allowing your own child to wear a corset?
I'd wait until they were old enough to decide on their own.
And at what age would they be old enough to do that?
There really is no age. We can range them anywhere from nine months up. Corsets are actually good for the back so it's good to get them started.
And how does your life compare to Game of Thrones?
What the heck is that?
Olaf, Sword Swallower
Olaf is a machinist by trade and made the very swords that he swallows. He does not travel with the fairs but performs at various shows throughout the year, including Civil War reenactments. "It's an ancient art form," he said. "Earliest records date it back over 4,000 years." Olaf estimates that around the world, there are only about three dozen professional sword swallowers, "not counting the hundreds of fakirs over in India, but they swallow swords as a spiritual pursuit and they wouldn't consider doing it on stage as an entertainment."
On the subject of spirituality, Olaf told us about how he had his aura photographed as he did his performance. "Click, click, click, a matter of seconds," he said. The camera was a modified Polaroid instant camera so it wasn't long before he saw the results. The photographer told him, "I've never seen anything like this before," and that at her research facility, three hours might separate a first and second photograph and only show subtle differences in the aura between the two. But according to Olaf, "In the first photo where I'm holding the sword, my aura is solid green. When I had the sword swallowed, it was all solid red. And when I'd pulled the sword out, it was like a rainbow. All five colors of the chakra were in evidence."
Cultist: Have you ever had an injury?
Just once. I was swallowing three swords and I went to take them out. I pinched them together and I felt it grab but it was like pinch-and-go and I didn't have time to release, so I nipped a of the inside of my throat. It wasn't a serious injury. I ceased for a month and a half or so, until it didn't hurt anymore and went back to it. I currently hold a number of world records, half a dozen.
One world record is for swallowing the most swords in the space of three minutes. I think it was 18 or 19. It doesn't sound like very much. But repeatedly... There's more than one gag reflex. There's one at the tongue, one at the top of the esophagus and one at the base of the esophagus. After a while, you start feeling a bit queasy.
How do you train yourself to get rid of a gag reflex?
You never do. It's always there. It's alive and well. Every time I have a sword down my throat, I am choking. But I do a little mental side step. It's going to sound corny but the most honest answer is that I don't do it. I experience it being done. Want to see me do it?
Isabella, Queen of Spain
We first noticed the Queen when, on her approach, the crowds parted and her subjects dropped to their knees, a lucky few being privileged to kiss her hand. We were granted a rare audience with Her Majesty, who had just come from hosting a high tea for young princesses.
She told us that the best finger sandwiches are ham finger sandwiches. Just ham? "Mmm hmm," she said. "I have it on pumpernickel bread. That's how it is served to me and ladies of the court." For 15th century vegetarians, she recommends "legumes. Cucumbers, perhaps. And perhaps a paste of avocado and lettuce." That sounds delicious, we told her. "It does indeed," she replied.
Cultist: So what are your duties as Queen?
Queen Isabella: To make people happy, to make people feel good about themselves and to enjoy the festival.
We noticed a rather mopey young man standing under a tree, fondling his smartphone.
And what would you do if faced with a Gloomy Gus like this fellow over there?
Awww. I would approach him like this. Good afternoon, I am Queen Isabella of Spain and I am pleased to make your acquaintance.
At this point, Cultist was excited to learn that this was not just any queen but Queen Isabella of Spain! She gives people ships!
Queen Isabella, cont.: And sometimes, that's enough to make someone smile. (to Gloomy Gus) How fair you this day?
Gloomy Gus: Very well.
Queen Isabella: And what have you seen this day to delight you?
Gloomy Gus: I can't say.
Queen Isabella: You can't? Is that because it is untoward?
Gloomy Gus laughs, though from the look of the guy, she probably nailed it.
Queen Isabella: See? I have done my job for the day.
One Eye, Strength Test Administrator
You can't tell from this photograph -- in which One Eye fends off an opponent whom, he says, had already killed him once earlier in the day -- but One Eye actually has two perfectly good eyes. He is called One Eye "because I got one eye on this side and one eye on this side." He claims his favorite of his eyes is the one in the middle.
"You can't see it," he says.
At the fair, One Eye is in charge of a strength test wherein participants swing a sledgehammer at a lever and try to send a clapper up a pole to ring a bell.
Cultist: What's a good indicator that someone will be able to ring the bell before you see them pick up the hammer?
One Eye: They look like they work. They wear work boots that it looks like they actually work in.
Have you ever been surprised by someone? Like, has a little girl ever rang the bell?
Not in seven years. On the smaller one, they do, though.
Is that the one for little girls then?
That's a little chauvinistic. It's the Junior one.
Chauvinism isn't okay? I thought we were in olden times.
Olden times, yeah! "Get me a sandwich, wench!" If only that worked...
Trey and Jeremy, Animal Trainers
Trey and Jeremy take pride in how well they treat their animals, an exotic cast of which the centerpiece is Cylon the Tiger. They don't force the animals to do anything they wouldn't do naturally. "If he climbs up on the side of the fence," Jeremy says, motioning back to the thin metal enclosure separating his back from the teeth and claws of his tiger, "it's as if his climbing up on a tree. But if the animals don't want to do anything and they just want to come sit out there, we'll just talk about about them with them just sitting there."
Cultist: When the show isn't going on, do you spend time with the animals?
Jeremy:Yep, just like you saw there a minute ago. I go in there with them, pet them, hang out with them. Some of them like to take a nap in between shows. Whoever is on display, we'll put them in the back 30 minutes prior to a show to give them a resting period.
What sort of unexpected things do happen?
Well, normally, like you saw today, we showed him a piece of meat and he wasn't too interested, like he had a rough Friday night. He just laid back. Every show is different and we never push the animals.
And what is good hangover food for a tiger?
Any piece of meat is a good hangover food for them. We do mainly a mixture of chicken and beef. The good thing about the chicken is that it has the bones. They're also supplemented with vitamins. We supplement it with a powdered vitamin.
Trey: It's like Shake & Bake. "And I helped!"
Cardinal Claudio Stecco, Clergyman
Cardinal Claudio did not have the opportunity to vote in the recent papal conclave. "Actually," he tells us, "I was sent out as a free range cardinal from the College of Cardinals. I was to look for alternative papal candidates. I was shooting for a woman who lives in Boca. Her name was Marie but we didn't get anywhere near the papacy. I wanted pink smoke to come up when she was declared pope but it didn't happen."
He does take comfort, however, in a reminder of Pope Francis's advanced age, which may clear the way for the reign of Popette Marie sooner than we think. "Though Marie is old herself, even if delicately preserved," he says. Incorruptible? "You've been reading Angels and Demons," Claudio scolds. Forgive us, Your Grace, for we have sinned.
Cultist: What are your duties as cardinal in the New World?
Cardinal: I represent the pope's interests here in Florida. I have been sent by His Holiness to make sure that King Ferdinand maintains a hold on the pope's Catholicism.
What do you make of all these antipopes?
Oh, the Borgia popes? They're all phony baloney popes. Why would anyone? Lord Percival, our mayor, he could declare himself pope.
Percival: And I have, but I have a better wardrobe as mayor.
Cardinal: If you want anyone to be the pope, then I suppose you could
but really, there's only one official pope. I don't believe in the antipopes.
Percival:The uncle popes, on the other hand...
Lord Percival, Mayor of Port Isabella
Lord Percival hopes that he can be left to his own devices, to run the Port the way he sees fit under the "benevolent neglect" of King Ferdinand, a ruler that the mayor says "does not vacation well." Cardinal Claudio adds, "All of the perks and none of the responsibilities. Which I think is an ideal situation for anyone."
Cultist: What are the leading issues you face as mayor?
Percival: Well, mostly it is my very devout wish that we become a Spanish colony. Because I have business interests that will prosper if we become Spanish. If however, the Holy Roman Emperor takes over, we will all have to learn to speak German and I do not wish to do that. Nor will I eat saurbraten, nor will I wear lederhosen. I simply do not have the legs for it. Even worse should we become Scots. Oh, heavens no.
Cardinal: You know, just because you buy a kilt doesn't mean you have the right to wear it.
Percival: It's a little bit like tights: it's a privilege not a right.
And from where do you get your iced coffee?
From Dave's Mini Donuts. It is actually the finest. It is very refreshing. We here in the colonies of the New World have discovered all sorts of wonderful new things. The native savages also have something known as tobacco that I think is going to be all the hit in Europe. And we're beginning to do marvelous things with chocolate.
What's your favorite thing to do with chocolate?
Well, my favorite thing to do, actually, is to smear the nun in it and watch the ants go crazy.
Mother Superior Mary Moonshine, Nun
"I basically work with the Cardinal because he's incompetent," Mother Mary tells us, as soon as the Cardinal is out of earshot. "Loose lips and all. He did let slip one time about an indiscretion the King had, which made the Queen very unhappy. Ferdinand took jewelry and silver and various household items that were very valuable from families in the villages and sold them to pay for Chris to go off on his little journey there. Isabella knew but she didn't want other people to know."
Cultist: Tell me more about being smeared with chocolate by Lord Percival.
Mary: He does have his ways. He tries to torture me as much as possible.
He tried to put rocks in my bed, as if I would notice this, but I did. Even one, I would notice that. And then there was the time where he found the raccoon's head and put it in my bed. Thought it would scare the bejeezus out of me but no, it didn't do that.
Lord Percival seems very focused on your bed.
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Well, it's because he can't get into it.
The Florida Renaissance Festival continues on weekends through April 14. For more details, visit ren-fest.com.